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The World Conservation Congress: A message from Marseille

By Jim Pettiward, Synchronicity Earth, 24th November 2021

With large-scale environmental events such as the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Conservation Congress (IUCN WCC) and the upcoming UN Biodiversity Conference (CBD COP15) gaining more attention – particularly among mainstream media – what can environmental funders do to support their grantees and help to ensure their ideas and concerns are heard within these spaces? In this piece, Jim Pettiward explains how Synchronicity Earth championed its partners and helped to promote a broad and diverse range of voices at IUCN WCC this year.

In early September, Synchronicity Earth (SE) participated in the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Conservation Congress (IUCN WCC), held in Marseille.

The IUCN WCC is the world’s largest conservation convening, taking place every four years. Taking part in this event online, as well as in person, meant that we were able to ensure that a broader range of stakeholders’ voices were heard. Having in-person representation at the Congress meanwhile allowed us to vote on crucial IUCN motions (which aim to set the agenda and priorities for the IUCN and help steer global conservation policy) on behalf of conservation partners unable to attend themselves. It also meant we could play a pivotal role in creating and facilitating two ‘pavilions’ (debate and event spaces running throughout the Congress) to present case studies of successful initiatives to protect and restore nature, bringing together a diverse range of voices and experience for panel discussions, events and creative collaborations.

At the same time, we worked remotely with our grantees – mostly small, local conservation groups and alliances – in the Democratic Republic of Congo to deliver a successful ‘Mini-Congress’ in Kinshasa, facilitating their virtual participation in the main event in Marseille and, perhaps more importantly, helping to provide space for them to collaborate, build strong relationships and plant the seeds for future joint initiatives.

Why was it important for us to participate in the Congress?

On the face of it, funding environmental work seems simple: a donor, trust or foundation funds an organisation to carry out work which benefits the environment. However, as many funders recognise, funding itself is only one side of the story: arguably, the role and responsibility of funders, both to their grantees and to the wider sector, runs much deeper.

Environmental funders can bring fresh perspectives to conservation. On the one hand, the relationships and experience SE has gained through our long-term funding and support for multiple partners working on the frontline of environmental destruction around the globe gives us insight into many of the key challenges facing conservationists on the ground. On the other hand, working with a variety of funders, from individual donors to large trusts and foundations, we understand the current priorities and preoccupations of environmental philanthropy and can bring that funder perspective to the discussions.

The IUCN is the world’s largest environmental network, consisting of nation states, government agencies, NGOs and Indigenous Peoples’ member organisations from around 170 countries. It is the only environmental organisation to have Observer status at the United Nations General Assembly.

Every four years, the IUCN WCC brings together some of the IUCN’s 1400+ members to debate and explore solutions to urgent conservation challenges. Against the backdrop of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic (the Congress was originally due to take place in 2020), the French Government and the IUCN took the difficult, and somewhat controversial, decision to run the Congress as a hybrid event, meaning people could choose to attend in person in Marseille or join parts of the Congress remotely.

The Congress was a unique opportunity for SE to highlight challenges our partners on the ground are facing, share success stories and bring key issues, such as the urgent need to put Indigenous and local community perspectives and practice at the heart of the global conservation agenda, to the fore.

Bringing key environmental issues to the top of the agenda

Flourishing Diversity, an initiative hosted by SE, was created to help deepen understanding among predominantly Western audiences of the profound connections between biological and cultural diversity and the role we can all play in helping this diversity to flourish. It was a founding partner of the Reimagine Pavilion, alongside the host country France and two IUCN Commissions (CEC and CEESP), which ran throughout the Congress. This Pavilion was a hive of creativity where people could come and see how attention to culture-centered conservation, rights of nature and our relationship to the ‘more than human’ might help transform society. SE Co-founder and Trustee, Jessica Sweidan, Zoomed in to speak on two panels focused on Reimagining Philanthropy, and helped launch Reimagine Conservation as a major cross-cutting initiative across the IUCN Secretariat and Commissions.

SE affiliate Grace Iara Souza speaks at a panel discussion at the Reimagine Pavilion. Photo by Anna Heath

SE affiliate Grace Iara Souza speaks at a panel discussion at the Reimagine Pavilion. Photo by Anna Heath

A particular highlight was a ‘Listening Session’ where Razan al Mubarak (Managing Director of the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi and the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, elected as the new IUCN President during the Congress) and the IUCN SSC Chair Jon-Paul Rodriguez gave the floor to two Indigenous People, Tom Goldtooth and Mindahi Bastida, to speak candidly about Indigenous Peoples’ systems for caring for their land, the importance of agricultural diversity and the perverse nature of many carbon offsetting schemes, and to express their worries and hopes for the future.

SE also partnered with the Reverse the Red Pavilion, hosted by the IUCN SSC. Anna Heath (SE Programme and Partner Manager) spoke about the Agroecology Fund, a multi-donor fund supporting agroecological practices and policies, and Félix Feider (SE Programme Officer) spoke on a panel on #Natureforall about the importance of connecting with nature and hosted a press conference for the Rights of Rivers movement.

SE Programme Office Félix Feider speaks at the #Natureforall panel. Photo by Anna Heath

SE Programme Office Félix Feider speaks at the #Natureforall panel. Photo by Anna Heath

Giving all partners a voice

To facilitate the participation of local partners in our Congo Basin Programme in the Congress, SE sponsored and co-created a ‘Mini-Congress’ in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for eight of our Congo Basin partner organisations plus one guest organisation. These partners were also joined by a representative of the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) and a representative of DRC’s Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development.

The event was a huge success, with partners coming together to present their work and successes, discuss common challenges and engage together remotely with other conservationists attending the Congress in Marseille. As a result, they have committed to creating a new DRC-based IUCN National Committee.

Participants at the Kinshasa ‘Mini Congress’. Photo by Merline Touko Tchoko

Participants at the Kinshasa ‘Mini Congress’. Photo by Merline Touko Tchoko

Driving change in the IUCN and beyond

In addition to hosting and participating in vital discussions, attendance at the Congress gave us the opportunity to contribute to setting the agenda and determining the direction of travel for the world’s largest environmental organisation.

At each Congress, IUCN members vote on motions to set the agenda and priorities for the IUCN, and help steer global conservation policy and exert influence on third parties such as governments and corporations. Once adopted, these motions become Resolutions which, while not legally binding, represent the voice of the world’s largest global conservation community.

Since 1948, many Resolutions have played a key role in driving the global conservation agenda forward, contributing to the creation of the International Whaling Commission, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance to name just a few. So, while the motions adopted during the Congress in Marseille may not lead to change overnight, their adoption as Resolutions plays a crucial role in setting the wider conservation agenda, helps hold the IUCN to account and raises the profile of critical conservation issues among the wider global community.

A key priority for SE was to help ensure that our partners’ voices were heard in the motion decision-making process, regardless of their size or location. We have considerable knowledge and experience of the IUCN and its processes on our team, in particular through our Chief Scientific Adviser, Simon Stuart. That helped us, along with our partners, to navigate the often complex steps involved in proposing and supporting IUCN motions. Crucially, we were able to exercise proxy votes on behalf of nine of our partner organisations (grantees) who were unable to attend in person, ensuring that their voices would be heard. Without the strong relationships and trust we have built over time with these partners, we would not have been able to support them in this way.

SE co-sponsored motions on a range of issues, including recognising and supporting indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ rights and roles in conservation, and protection of deep-ocean ecosystems and biodiversity through a moratorium on seabed mining, both of which were adopted. We were also proponents for new and urgent motions, including a motion on the Grand Inga Dam Project development, which was also adopted.

It was both a responsibility and a privilege for SE to be involved in the world’s largest conservation convening. We hope that we were able to highlight some of the critical issues facing the sector, whilst also promoting equitable solutions that start with the people on the ground in some of Earth’s most biologically and culturally diverse regions.

As a funder, the importance of listening, providing long-term and flexible support, building relationships based on trust, and being open and collaborative has never been more apparent, nor more urgent.

Read The Marseille Manifesto, which was agreed by IUCN members during the Congress, here.

Jim Pettiward is Head of Communications at Synchronicity Earth, an independent, UK-based charity focused on global biodiversity conservation.

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